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New historical society will focus on Flanders

Publication: The Southampton Press
By Jessica DiNapoli   Jun 10, 2009 5:08 PM

Imagine a mostly wooded hamlet nestled along Peconic Bay, one dotted with only a few small cabins and a single hotel that served as a hunting and fishing playground for Manhattan businessmen looking to get away for the weekend.

Not long ago, that small and quiet hamlet was Flanders, according to Gary Cobb, the president of the newly chartered Flanders Village Historical Society.

The inaugural meeting of the organization, which received its charter from the New York State Board of Education in mid-May, will be held this Thursday, June 11, at 7:30 p.m., at the Flanders Men’s Club on Flanders Road. At the meeting, Mr. Cobb and the six other members of the Flanders Village Historical Society’s Board of Trustees are hoping to share their mission with the public and attract more members.

“We’re going to teach people where they are,” Mr. Cobb said, explaining that his organization will work to help Flanders residents cultivate a better sense of community. He said the hamlet will have more of an identity if group members work to shed light on its rich history.

For some residents, many of whom now call Flanders their year-round home, the hamlet’s western location and proximity to Riverhead Town often makes them feel like they are not a part of Southampton Town. Flanders does not have a post office, and most school-age children attend class in the Riverhead School District, Mr. Cobb noted.

But more recent changes, including the widening of Flanders Road in the 1990s, have transformed Flanders from a cozy country refuge to a hamlet that is struggling to find its new identity. That is where the Flanders Village Historical Society hopes to step in, according to Mr. Cobb.

“We want to restore a sense of place in the community,” he said, adding that many residents wish that the hamlet had a post office of its own. “Flanders has suffered an identity crisis forever.”

Mr. Cobb explained that he named the group the Flanders Village Historical Society because, in the past, the stretch of Flanders Road between Chauncey Road and Long Neck Boulevard was often referred to as “Flanders Village” in old newspaper articles and on maps, even though it was never incorporated.

“It had a school, two churches, nine summer boarding houses, stores, a yacht club and an exclusive sportsmen club,” Mr. Cobb said about the structures that previously lined Flanders Road.

At their inaugural meeting on Thursday night, group members are hoping to double the membership of the organization, said Liza Skiffington, a member of the society’s Board of Trustees. She said the Flanders Village Historical Society now has 20 general members in addition to the board. The group intends to hold a public meeting every other month, she added.

Ms. Skiffington said that her home, which is actually the old Flanders schoolhouse and located next the cemetery on Flanders Road, was her inspiration for joining the Historical Society. The schoolhouse was built in 1853 and measured only 850 square feet. The structure was renovated in 1919 and was later converted into a church, Ms. Skiffington said.

“It’s old, it’s small, it has charm and all the things that the extravagant houses couldn’t possibly capture,” Ms. Skiffington said of her home that she has lived in since 2004.

Mr. Cobb noted that while many people immediately associate the Big Duck with Flanders, the hamlet holds many other historical gems, including Ms. Skiffington’s home.

The James Benjamin Homestead, located on Flanders Road and directly opposite the eastern end of Pleasure Drive, is the oldest recognized house in Flanders, Mr. Cobb said. Like the Big Duck, it is listed on the state and national historic registers, he said. The owners of the Benjamin Homestead, which was built in 1782, are currently renovating it, Mr. Cobb said.

“I’ve toured the house and they’re maintaining the integrity of the building,” Mr. Cobb said.

The Brewster House, also known as the Big Blue Elephant to locals for its deep blue color, also boasts a storied past, Mr. Cobb said. The structure was built in 1880 by Captain Robert W. Penney, a one-time resident of Flanders, Mr. Cobb said.

Nicole Dionne of Oakdale, who formerly lived in Bay View Pines, explained that one of the group’s most important future goals is to eventually own a historic building in the hamlet and use it as a venue for showcasing local artifacts.

“We want to establish a place for schools to come to,” Ms. Dionne said. She added that members of the Flanders Village Historical Society would eventually like to have a home similar to the Tuthill House on Mill Road in Westhampton Beach, which serves as the home to the Westhampton Beach Historical Society.

Additionally, the group intends to start organizing tours of the hamlet and other historical-based activities, Mr. Cobb said.

With the help of new members, and his dedicated Board of Trustees, Mr. Cobb is hopeful that the Flanders Village Historical Society will bring a renewed sense of identity, and perhaps even a deepened sense of pride, to the community.

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Best wishes to you all in your endeavors. I applaud you for preserving your history.
By bb (444), Hampton Bays on Jul 9, 09 9:40 PM
Flanders is a magical place
By Johnny Nova (83), Northampton on Jul 31, 09 10:13 PM
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